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Lauletta: Royals maiden win had it all

Utah rookie forward Ally Sentnor hugs a teammate after scoring her first professional goal.
Photo Copyright Rob Gray for USA TODAY Sports

Utah Royals FC head coach Amy Rodriguez said her players had a sour taste in their mouths on the heels of the franchise-christening, 2-0 loss to the Chicago Red Stars in Week 1.

“These guys had something to prove and they did that,” Rodriguez said following a much more fulfilling result last Friday, a 2-1 victory over the North Carolina Courage.

Any first win is special, but there was much to remember about this one. From Kate Del Fava’s first goal for the new Royals to the bizarre back-to-back penalties, and the debut goal of No. 1 overall pick Ally Sentnor, no one who witnessed the Royals win will soon forget it.

Sentnor, who turned 20 last month, was handed an acre of space by the Courage defense and took full advantage, racing to the top of the 18-yard box and uncorking a left-footed missile that found the far, upper 90. To say it beat Courage keeper Casey Murphy would be unfair considering the degree of difficulty of Sentnor’s shot. When it rattled the netting to give the Royals the 2-1 lead, Sentnor calmly turned around and looked at her teammates like she had already made that kind of magic hundreds of times.

“So I didn’t see Ally’s reaction but that does not surprise me at all,” Rodriguez said, later acknowledging she didn’t see it because she was busy celebrating herself. “It is rare to find someone as humble and hardworking as she is. And to score one of the best goals I have seen in a long time, it’s no surprise that she shrugged it off.

“I was elated obviously. There was no humbleness in that moment for me.”

“Honestly,” Sentnor said through laughs, “I’m not a big celebration person. I’m so happy though. I promise I’m so happy. All my teammates knew it was coming from a couple of shots in practices, and they were so happy for me and celebrating with me. Just to put us up in the game is such a great feeling. I’m just so proud of is and ready to score some more games hopefully.”

Sentnor’s contributions were not limited to the scoresheet. As the Royals absorbed late pressure from the Courage, Sentnor was a vital part of seeing out the game, fighting for loose balls in midfield and helping to hold possession.

Asked about the pressure of being not only the top pick in her draft class but the first for a new club, Sentnor deferred back to the team.

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“For me, it was mostly a pressure to help the team and a pressure to help perform for the team to win. I try not to put too much pressure on myself because I don’t play very well if I do. I’m really just trying to enjoy every moment and at the end of the day, I’m doing everything I can on the field to help my team excel.”

Sentnor’s goal may have led the highlight reels, but the second half-penalty sequence was the most unusual part of the night. It started in the 56th minute when the Courage press forced a turnover from Royals keeper Mandy Haught. Nirumi Miura fed Denise O’Sullivan, who in turn was taken down by Agnes Nyberg for a penalty. Malia Berkely, who scored from the spot in Week 1, stepped up again but hit the left post. The ball ricocheted wide where Ashley Sanchez and Addisyn Merrick went for it. Merrick fouled Sanchez and the Courage were right back at the spot. Berkely tried again, went the other way, and Haught made a clean save. The total elapsed time from the first foul, until Haught saved the second penalty, was about 3:05.

The only downside for the Royals was the injury to Imani Dorsey late in the 1st half. The former National Women’s Soccer League Rookie of the Year missed all of 2023 with Gotham while battling mental health issues. Now her 2024 season appears over due to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Around the league

Red Stars 2, Reign 1

The Red Stars are 2-0-0 for the first time after knocking off the Reign in front of a likely opening-day crowd at SeatGeek Stadium. Mallory Swanson looked much sharper than in the opener though it was her teammates who again carried the scoring load. Julia Bianchi and Maximiliane Rall accounted for the goals, sandwiching Ji So-Yun’s sensational finish for the Reign.

Rall got on the end of a Taylor Malham cross, but it is fair to ask where the Reign defense was on the play. It looked more like confusion than organization and several players had palms up questioning teammates as Rall made her finish. Left-back Lily Woodham left her original mark to a center back but did not account for the space behind her and Rall ran in free where she scored her first NWSL goal.

The confusion was real but Reign coach Laura Harvey did have a point about the referee inadvertently running a pick for the Red Stars and blocking Angharad James-Turner from closing down Malham.

“How the refs allowed that second goal to happen when she literally ran straight into Haz (James-Turner) who then can’t stop the cross is mind-blowing,” Harvey said. “But we live and learn.”

The three-time NWSL Coach of the Year also said: “We took our foot off the gas again on the second goal.”

Pride 1, Angel City 1 

Marta hit her first non-penalty goal for the Pride since September 2021 to give the Pride a second consecutive come-from-behind draw. Angel City went ahead on Claire Emslie’s penalty early in the second half but literally did not mark Marta on an 88th-minute corner kick and she volleyed it home to secure the draw.

“I had good memories from when I was younger, like 20, 22,” Marta told Amazon’s Lianne Sanderson after the match. “I said ‘God let me have that feeling again.’ And we never give up. That was a hard game.” Marta missed the 2022 season with a torn ACL and all 4 of her goals last year were from the spot.

Last weekend in Louisville, the Pride fell behind 2-0 and equalized through Summer Yates in the 86th minute while playing with 10. Angel City, who have yet to score in the run of play, are winless through two regular season matches for the first time.

One moment I noticed came late in the first half. See above where Meggie Dougherty Howard (#8) loses the ball and then only halfheartedly tracks back as Marta runs into space and eventually distributes to the flank. The Pride did not get anything out of this sequence but that is a leak Angel City will want to clean up.

Dash 0, Louisville 0

The first scoreless draw of the season was not without its talking points, starting with Louisville’s lineup which saw Savannah DeMelo miss the match as a late scratch. Even without her, Racing had the better of the play. Jane Campbell made the best of her nine saves on Emma Sears, from point-blank range in the 73rd minute. In stoppage time, Campbell was beaten by Kayla Fischer and bailed out by Sarah Puntigam. The goal-line clearance was particularly difficult because Puntigam had to get her foot behind the ball since it was right on the edge of the goal line.

“I just saw I needed to get there somehow, it (didn’t) matter how,” Puntigam said. “It went so fast I had no time thinking. I just did something. I’m glad it worked out.”

The major talking point was in the 1st half when Campbell came out of her box to challenge Reiylln Turner. Turner stayed down after the contact, and with no defenders in site, a whistle would have resulted in a red card to Campbell. But nothing was called and the match continued.

Spirit 2, Bay 1

It was Draft Night at Audi Field. Croix Bethune, the No. 3 overall pick, scored in the 95th minute to give the Spirit their first win of the season. No. 5 pick Hal Hershfelt scored the equalizer. Bay had gone ahead through former Spirit defender Dorian Bailey.

Bethune enjoyed a strong match that had her in the crowd’s back pocket, including a chance to score late in the game that hit the crossbar. The winner was a thing of beauty as she turned on a flicked ball to evade Caprice Dydasco and Emily Menges. Ashley Hatch was nearby and shielded off Savannah King while tapping it back to Bethune for the finish. The flick was put on by Courtney Brown, the No. 49 pick.

King was selected No. 2 by Bay FC and made her second start at left-back. King struggled with Trinity Rodman which hardly makes her unusual. Rodman laid the ball off to Hershfelt for the first Spirit goal.

Wave 1, Current 2

The Vlatko Andonovski era in Kansas City is underway with victories against the two top-finishing teams from a year ago. This one was VAR-assisted after Christen Westphal clearly took down Bia entering the box but the call was missed in real time. Lo’eau LaBonta stepped up and drilled the tiebreaking penalty. LaBonta has been 7-for-9 from the spot in all competitions but one of the misses was a save by Wave keeper Kailen Sheridan in 2022. On the day, LaBonta went left and Sheridan dove to her right to save it. This time LaBonta went right and Sheridan went right again, leaving her helpless.

The Current saw the game out by keeping things packed defensively and held off the Wave. It was a far cry from Week 1 when they saw a 5-1 lead against the Thorns turn into a 5-4 nailbiter.

“Obviously, the end does turn into whoever can get a touch on the ball,” Izzy Rodriguez, who also scored for the Current, said. “But we knew who was going out for the ball, we were covering for each other. We were going hard into 50/50 battles. But all of us knew our jobs so that was the most important part.”

Sofia Jakobsson tallied for the Wave.

Thorns 0, Gotham 1

One of the more impressive NWSL streaks was snapped as the Thorns lost their home opener for the first time after winning their first 10. They also dropped to 0-2-0 for the first time while the NWSL champions opened their regular season with a win. Esther scored the goal with a clever run that saw her pull up inside the 18 while two Thorns defenders continued to move toward the goal line. Yazmeen Ryan evaded a double team and found the Spaniard in the pocket where she easily finished it. Twice it appeared Sophia Smith had given the Thorns a lead only have each celebration cut short for offside.

Talking points

  • After CPKC Stadium opened, Current coach Vlatko Andonovski said a member of his staff asked him how many NWSL venues he had coached in. We decided to look it up, and Saturday night Snapdragon Stadium became the 25th. Of those 25, there is only one where Andonovski has coached more than one game without a win. Children’s Mercy Park where FC Kansas City played one-off matches in 2015 and 2016, losing both.
  • Seattle Reign FC are being purchased by a group that includes the Carlyle Group and MLS’ Seattle Sounders FC. OL Groupe will sell its 97% stake for $58 million. The transaction is pending approval by both MLS and NWSL. OL Groupe majority owner John Textor remains the Reign’s Board of Governors representation.
  • NWSL and LIGA MX Feminil announced details of a Summer Cup that will pit all 14 NWSL clubs against six Mexican sides. Most of the competitions will happen in July and August during the Olympic break. The final will be held during a FIFA window at the end of October. See additional details and my thoughts on the event here.

Free kicks

  • Samantha Staab made her 92nd consecutive start on Saturday. If she appears for the Red Stars this weekend in Orlando, she will tie Amber Brooks’ league record for consecutive appearances at 93. Brooks held the mark for consecutive starts at 72 until Staab, then with the Spirit, broke it.
  • The NWSL has amended its yellow card rules to avoid double jeopardy when a player is shown two in the same game. Last season, Racing Louisville’s Savannah DeMelo was suspended for being sent off with two yellows and was later given an accumulation suspension with the first of those yellows included. Fortunately, that will never happen again.
  • Marta was highlighted above but it should be noted that at 38, she is still pretty good at this sport.
  • Kate Del Fava’s historic Royals goal was her second in the NWSL. Her first was for the Kansas City Current in the 2022 quarterfinals to beat the Houston Dash in the 10th minute of stoppage time. She sure makes them count!
  • Sydney Leroux stayed back in Los Angeles due to illness but was not listed on the league’s Availability Report. It kind of feels like there is no rhyme or reason to how teams use the report. A text to a league spokesperson seeking clarification was not returned.
  • Esther Gonzalez’s goal for Gotham was the 3,000th regular season goal in NWSL history.
  • The promotion of the ION Saturday night games is a bit odd to me as most of the buildup to this weekend focused on the early match between the Spirit and Bay FC. For some reason, it was rarely promoted as a doubleheader, which concluded with the Wave-Current match. We’ll see if this changes moving forward.
  • It has come to our attention that NWSL now recognizes the two forfeit games from 2021 on the official coaching records. That means Laura Harvey now has 98 wins and is in line to become the first coach to reach the century mark. Mark Parsons also has an extra win. They both come at the expense of Kris Ward who was Spirit coach at the time when they forfeited two games due to violations of COVID-19 protocols.
  • This past week, The Equalizer published this story about former Houston Dash assistant coach Matt Lampson and the reasons behind his firing. Unfortunately, the statement from the club, or lack thereof, shows that the lessons supposedly learned following the scandal-ridden fall of 2021 have not been heeded as much as we were led to believe. The club is under no obligation to mention any names or details but certainly could have confirmed (or denied for that matter) the reasons in Theo’s report for Lampson’s departure. And in fact, they should have gotten ahead of the story and put out a statement immediately upon parting ways.

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